Puerto Rico



Devastated by hurricane Maria in September 2017, Puerto Rico is still far from fully recovered. Total losses from the storm are expected to exceed $100 billion. Hundreds have died and the rebuilding of infrastructure has been much slower than many had hoped. Join Active Minds as we review the history of this important U.S. Territory, including how U.S. policies have impacted its economy and its people over the past century. We will end with a look forward as to what the future may hold for the island as it continues to rebuild.

Key Lecture Points

  • Part of the US, but not a state: Puerto Rico is an “unincorporated, organized territory of the U.S. with commonwealth status.” Residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they do not have representation in Congress and cannot vote for president. In a June 2017 non-binding referendum about Puerto Rican statehood, 23% of voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Puerto Rican statehood. Ultimately, the US Congress, and not Puerto Ricans, has the power to decide the question of whether Puerto Rico becomes a state.
  • Persistent national identity: Even though Puerto Ricans are American citizens, many Puerto Ricans retain a strong sense of their own Puerto Rican identity. Retaining Spanish as the most commonly spoken language is an important part of Puerto Rican heritage.
  • Migration to and from the US: Movement between Puerto Rico and the US is very much a part of Puerto Rican culture. Since the 1940s, more than 2 million Puerto Ricans have moved abroad, mostly to the US. Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states take pride in their culture. Puerto Rico Day (Desfile Puertorriqueño) is one of America’s largest cultural celebrations.
  • Economic crisis: Puerto Rico’s economy has been in crisis since 2006. Over the past decade, the public debt has spiraled from $18 to $72 billion.  Puerto Rico’s status as a US commonwealth complicates its economic recovery. To many Puerto Ricans, federal efforts to address the debt crisis looks like a step backward toward the US federal government controlling the island with little input from its residents.
  • Destruction of Hurricane Maria: Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September, 2017. As many as 1,000 people may have died during the hurricane and in its immediate aftermath. Total losses from the storm in Puerto Rico are expected to be more than $100 billion. As of March 2018, 6 months after the disaster, nearly 200,000 residents were still without power. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have left the island in the aftermath of the hurricane. The US federal government has drawn heavy criticism for its response.

Exploration Questions

  • How has Puerto Rico’s relationship changed over time? How has it remained the same?
  • What are the major challenges Puerto Rico faces today?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you ever been to Puerto Rico? What were your impressions?
  • Have you ever met anyone from Puerto Rico or with Puerto Rican roots? How did they talk about Puerto Rico?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Duany, Jorge. Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2017. 189 pages. Duany’s FAQ-style book is one of the most current, comprehensive and accessible books published about Puerto Rico.
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  • Kinzer, Stephen. The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire. Henry Holt and Co., 2017. 320 pages. While the main focus of Kinzer’s book is the Philippine-American War, The True Flag makes a compelling case for the Spanish-American war as the origin point of debates between expansionism and anti-expansionism that have persisted in the United States for more than a century.
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  • Picó, Fernando. History of Puerto Rico: Panorama of Its People. Markus Wiener, 2014. 357 pages. Picó’s work is probably the definitive text on the history of Puerto Rico and has been widely praised for including information about marginalized peoples.
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  • Sotomayor, Antonio. The Sovereign Colony: Olympic Sport, National Identity, and International Politics in Puerto Rico. University of Nebraska, 2016. 302 pages. Sotomayor tells the story of the Olympic movement in Puerto Rico and how it correlates with the island’s desire for political autonomy and sense of national identity.
    Click here to order